Archive for October, 2014


I used to hate it
in other people, now I
hate it in myself —
that civilised aggression
people call assertiveness

So warped, I even hate myself for hating myself. Part of me though feels justified in hating the pop psychology behind the term ‘assertiveness’. I have no idea at all, not the faintest inkling, how likely it is that anyone else would ever have shared, even slightly, my aversion both for the simplistic theory (as I was taught it) where assertiveness is supposed to be the middle way between passivity and aggression, and also the phenomenon of assertiveness itself. Could it be that I hate it simply because I’m not very good at it? I see myself as constantly ‘passive aggressive’ or in other words ‘neurotic’ in my habits of communication. However I also don’t believe I can be ‘cured’ of these traits, nor educated out of them — nor, really, would I want to be, since I feel they are an essential part of what makes me human. Well, anyway, last night I dreamed I was on a crowded escalator with two young men, friends, who seemed to be jeering in a sophisticated and fairly civilised, even friendly way, about my dress sense. I could not help sensing a fundamental hostility and bad intention, despite whatever veneer of acceptability, and I could not work out a response to them, so I simply closed my eyes. I’m quite sure technically their behaviour would not be termed ‘assertive’, but the idea of such a skilful application of bullying techniques, led me to the poem. I guess my personal distaste for my own assertiveness skills (so recently learned in the last ten years) is somewhere about level with the distaste I feel for my own passive aggression. I just aim to live with the thing I dislike, in both cases. Somewhere deep down I have a perverse conviction that passivity is the primary quality of existence – even to the extent of seriously considering passive aggression might be preferable to assertiveness since at least it contains a nod in the direction of passivity. I’m drawn to Jainism where (I gather) in the traditional religious art, the holy man or woman is depicted as having perfected ahimsa (non-violence or in other words passivity) to such a peak that they’ve become intertwined with creeping plants growing up around them. For example:


— fossil fuel — burning — mass
suicide — help me

I love the stark simplicity of this. It’s a long way from the actual content of last night’s dream though. I was in America for the first time (I have never been in reality) trying to collate my impressions. I realised with a shock the main thing I noticed was that this particular town seemed to be a sort of American version of Bournemouth, i.e. the average age of the population was extremely senior. The town was Los Alamos, somewhere on the East coast. There was a gap in my memory which disturbed me greatly — had I arrived with my mother and lost her, or had I been alone from the start? What I like about my poem most of all is the final two words help me, which is the best possible response when contemplating the enormity of our species’ suicidal plunge towards climate disaster. The poem is a chain of association from America to capitalism to fossil fuel, to climate disaster, to how I feel. The poem is cathartic for me. I experience chronic guilt in general, for being content to behave like a sheep, conforming to the ‘normal’ life I have chosen for myself. Adding my bit to the collective insanity of ‘normal’. I have no answer to this, and am clear that I have no answer. But those two words help me do help.


magic, white or black?
— a cup of tea or coffee
lovingly prepared

Funny how magic can be either white or black. Likewise tea and coffee. This is a very odd little poem, triggered in the short term by my dream last night which included quite a lot of Christian ritual. The subject of ritual led me to think of the Japanese tea-making ceremony. Way back in the nineties, I stumbled across a book that meant a lot to me — Street Zen — a biography of Issan Dorsey who was a Californian Zen monk who died of AIDS. In the book, there is a quote where Dorsey is trying to describe a moment when he feels he sees into the nature of reality in a flash. It’s triggered by something as simple as seeing someone carry a cup of tea. That has always stayed with me. Magic so often enters our lives via tea or coffee. The most conventional of all drugs. The most mundane of all possible things to be concerned with. Yet who would deny that, in preparing a caffeine drink, we touch routinely on some sense of ritual. And so many of us treat the drink itself as a magic balm. There was nothing about tea or coffee in my dream though: so I am puzzling a little, as to why these thoughts precisely now.


when I tell him I
love him, his face registers
belief mixed with dread
— like understanding nothing
and everything both at once

The poem describes a scene from real life. But in my dream last night, love just seemed to be an unspoken fact. Quite a selfless, non-demanding, non-sexual kind of love for a young black man named Joe. I met Joe perhaps three or four times, in 1990, when we were both homeless and hanging around Lincoln’s Inn Fields (a kind of unofficial Mecca of homelessness in those days). We had quite a lot in common, being from relatively well-educated backgrounds. When I first met him at the beginning of June, I was reading on a park bench in the sunshine and we struck up conversation around the book, which was Rider Haggard’s Nada the Lily. A week or two later I gave him something to read which I’d written myself. Just a handful of typewritten papers on the subject of the Greek myth of Antigone: I’d devised a set of symbolic meanings for each of Antigone’s siblings in the myth. I never found out his surname, never got my papers back, and by the end of July we’d lost touch. I still remember (to within a day, 28th or 29th June) the date I told him I loved him. It was a moment of exquisite tension. A couple of years later we ran into each other one final time. We were both still homeless and attending the handouts of free food from charity vans coming to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He was enthusing about the poet, John Wilmot Earl of Rochester.


am I a monster?
— I feel like a victim of
my own existence

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a wonderful book. I read it aged about sixteen, and it seemed especially full of meaning ten years later when I found myself a runaway from hospital. The monster in the book was an outcast from society, as I was, of course, but more than that, I felt the monster to be a symbol of consciousness itself. Human consciousness is the only thing we know of that wonders about its own origins; that painful wondering is what Mary Shelley captured. In my dream last night, I was briefly lucid, and felt absolutely determined to use my ability to control the dream in order to make sure that I copulate with any female body at all. In that sense I was predatory in the dream. But of course I was also helpless in the face of being driven by my own sexual feelings. It’s strange to me that consciousness needs so badly to believe in its own power, skill, mastery and control — when in fact the human situation (or that of any life) is really one of profound helplessness in so many respects. I was googling ‘Heisenberg’ a few days ago, and learned that Heisenberg’s wife was the sister of E.F.Schumacher, whose bestseller Small Is Beautiful I never yet read. Schumacher’s Wikipedia entry mentions his final book A Guide for the Perplexed and it’s clear my poem this morning owes quite a bit to some of these ideas.


literal first, then
apologetic — and last
of all, far too late,
I can hear myself being
just plain rude: Do I know you?

The more I think about it now, the more it seems to me that I spend a remarkable amount of time and energy in the literal and apologetic realms. My social self is more or less defined by these two habitual modes. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. In my dream there was a girl who, it turned out, was a prospective volunteer for one of the charities I work for. But my first words to her were Do I know you? and I’ve succeeded quite well in this poem, in getting across the succession of cognitive stages I went through in the dream. The net result was a not-all-that-mild sense of social anxiety which is perfectly true to life. But since this is a dream, I’m allowed leeway to add another layer too: the symbolic. The girl in my dream is a part of myself. I’m asking myself do I know myself. It’s also legitimate to query how well any of us actually know the people we say we ‘know’. The symbolic layer is the most interesting to me. I wish I were more interested in people themselves instead. Layering is a curious title, with its connotations of dressing and fashion. But I guess both poem and dream are concerned with the self we present to the world. The tension and stages between inside and outside.

‘Great Man’

I still have a thirst
for glory, even as I
approach old age with
nothing accomplished — demons
never really die — they sleep

The truth of what I’m saying here, is amply demonstrated just merely by my reaction to seeing the poem’s title ‘Great Man’ published online. How much irony do I intend? Are the capitals ironic? If so, isn’t it overkill to have inverted commas as well as capitals? Am I even being ironic at all? Is there such a thing as a great man? What’s the difference between legitimate ambition and deluded grandiosity? These thoughts follow seamlessly from yesterday’s post about Henri Beyle. He understood all about the desire to leave one’s mark. He fought for Napoleon and bought into the Napoleonic myth. He had fire and drive in his writing, and knew he did, and actively sought to be remembered. My dream last night was of finding myself sharing a sofa with Patsy Hage I feel quite sure that the sofa symbolises a desire to be a guest on a chat show. At some level, I really see myself as a potential guest. At some level, I take myself that seriously as a writer. Which is fine. But if nothing else, it’s sad that the chat show sofa is my measure of success.